Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ideas Never Die

The first snippet I always read upon receiving a new edition of the Economist is the Obituary. In a magazine often populated by depressing articles near the beginning, reading that last page about a life well lived brings a feeling of strange optimism. There actually are people who do great things, whether it be in watchmaking or writing.

In nearly every case, the person profiled has done something to disrupt the status quo. They created new organizations, fought for suppressed ideals, created artistry where there previously was none. Some overthrew governments -- going on to be tyrants or beloved freedom fighters.

Many of them had no idea they would become famous, nor did they seek out accolades. Life happened, and they grabbed hold of whatever came their way.

It's always interesting in a week where multiple Disruptive Thinkers pass away to see which one gets the back page. This is one of those weeks.

Academic Columns
Christopher Hitchens, that intellectual thorn in the side of pretty much every established interest, was the first to go. An avowed and almost militant atheist, he was unsparing in his criticism of anything he perceived to be inconsistent with his view of rationality. I cannot think of a person I should despise more; yet, he is one of my favorite critics when I'm in a Disruptive mood.

A friend introduced me to his Letters to a Young Contrarian last year, and I highlighted more passages per capita in that tome than I have in any other. Even his particularly searing criticism of religion got me nodding my head in agreement at some of the absurdities belief entails. He didn't convince me to change my outlook, but allowed me to deeply examine some of the fundamental tenants I hold to. The unexamined life is indeed not worth living.

Occupy Czechoslovakia
The second man to leave this earth was far different, but equally as Disruptive. Vaclav Havel was a man History plucked from obscurity and thrust into helping take down one of the worlds most repressive empires. A Czechoslovakian playwright, he was the de facto head of a dissident movement that spanned decades. Imprisoned multiple times for "hooliganism" and other disruptive behavior, he finally ascended to the Czech Presidency when the Evil Empire collapsed in 1989.

As a playwright, he knew how to shape words and convey inspiration to an oppressed people. His New Year's Addresses of 1990 and 1991 were the perfect contrast to the dry, hopeless messages past Communist leaders had spoken. He captured the spirit of millions in Eastern Europe longing to throw off the shackles of socialist overlords.

It's reading about men and women like these that confirm something I once read by another Disruptor, Viktor Frankl. When asked about aging and the longing for youth, Frankl notes:

What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? "No, thank you," he will think. "Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy."

Lives well lived never go out of style. People of action, speaking loudly for change and doing something about it always have a place in our world.

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